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The Dangling Thief
A Christmas tale from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1-6|7-12
The Dangling Thief, a science-fiction Christmas story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 7


Captain Rudolphus ruled the Antarctic airship Yule with orders as sharp as the pointy end of his wild, ginger beard. "Hoist taut that halyard!" he cried, spittle flying. "Double-check the new mizzen!" he yelled, cheeks flushed red. "Batten down all hatches!" he bellowed, hands on his hips.

Monks and nuns in safety-striped jumpsuits jumped at his words, saluting as they hopped to the job. "Ho, skipper! Ho ho!" They worked in teams to get the work done, singing songs as they did so to keep the work fun. They loaded and lifted and cleated and tied, then drew up the gangway, made sure every system was primed. "Fa-la-la-la-la!"

Repair crews scampered aside as the mighty engines were ignited. They coughed sparks and burped smoke and then spun, humming as the blades sped up to blurs. The engineer gave his thumbs up, and Captain Rudolphus nodded back. He checked his watch. He stroked his beard. He rang the ship's bell and addressed the ship's company:

"We've lost sixteen hours and the weather may lose us yet more, so I need every brother and sister in tip top form. I'm counting on you. Nicholas is counting on you. And, most important of all, the children are counting on you." Captain Rudolphus stood up tall and raised his voice, "Are you ready to deliver some joy?"

And the crew shouted back, "Ho captain, good captain!"

"To your stations," commanded Rudolphus. "Prepare for takeoff."

As the crew scurried to obey Raoul was left lonely in the middle of the cargo hold, surrounded on all sides by mysterious sacks and crates and a stack of baled hay. Raoul cleared his throat. "Um, what about me, sir?"

"Just stay out of the way," grumbled the captain, turning around as he stomped off to the cockpit.

Raoul sighed. He wished there was something useful he could do, to show Captain Rudolphus that he could be good for something!

But there was no time to think about that now -- Raoul's next concern became strapping himself into a set of seatbelts as the airship started to move. The floor lurched beneath his feet, and Raoul had to dance like a ballerina in order to keep his balance. He dove into a seat attached to the wall of the cargo hold and clicked the safety harnesses together as quick as he could.

He felt like he had butterflies in his tummy for a moment as the airship dipped and swayed. It rocked back and forth, engines singing, and then suddenly shot upward, pressing Raoul into his chair.

The captain's voice sounded over a speaker: "Attention all hands: we've cleared the landing channel, and are now navigating the open skies. You may remove your seatbelts. That is all."

Raoul undid his harnesses and slipped out of his seat. He took a few steps. The airship was flying level now, and the floor was no longer tilting. Raoul smiled.

Now was his chance to explore the ship!


CHAPTER 8

To his great relief, the first place Raoul found was the washroom. He didn't mean to steal the soap but somehow it ended up in his pocket anyway. Despite this, he forgot to wash his hands.

Next he followed the smell of cookies down some metal steps and into a long galley where monks in chef hats were busily baking. "Ho, ho!" they sang as they rolled out the gingerbread. "Ho!" they called as they stamped out stencils to shape the cookies: gingerbread boys and girls, canes and stars, snowflakes and tanenbaums.

One of the bakers grabbed Raoul's shoulder. "Ho there!"

"Hey!" said Raoul, startled.

"Can you sprinkle?" asked the baker.

"Um, I think I just did," replied Raoul sheepishly.

"There's more to be done!" declared the baker as he pulled Raoul into the hot galley. "Come on!" He gave Raoul two big shakers of red and green sprinkles and told him to shake them over trays of cookies. "Move quick, novice -- the jump teams need these batches post-haste!" he cried.

"What's a novice?" asked Raoul. "Who are jump teams?"

But all the baker said was, "Ho ho!" because he had already hurried off to tend to his next chore and wasn't really listening. Raoul shrugged and shook sprinkles over the gingerbread cookies. He shook and he shook and he shook. He shook out sprinkles until his tired arms felt like they were made of wet underpants.

"Ho?" he asked the baker wearily, pointing to the product of his hard work.

"Splendid!" smiled the baker. He tucked a gingerbread cookie into Raoul's pocket and then directed him to the door. They both dodged to avoid a nun carrying a cauldron of dough. "Thank you, young novice!" called the baker.

Because Raoul had a piece of gingerbread in his mouth all he could manage to say was, "Mou're melcome," but it seemed like the baker understood him alright.

Raoul stood outside of the galley for a moment, confused. He had a strange, warm spot in his tummy and he wondered if there were something wrong with the cookie he was eating. He stopped eating it and put it back in his pocket, but the warm feeling didn't go away. If anything, it seemed to be moving up to tickle his heart.

Raoul started to panic. He opened his mouth to cry out but, instead, a giggle came out.

Raoul furrowed his brow. "That was weird," he said to himself.

It had been so long since Raoul had had good feelings inside that he'd forgotten what they felt like.

He blinked, and found he could feel a smile on his lips. He started to walk, and his steps felt light. This caused him to stand up a bit straighter than he had stood in years.

That's when he was suddenly bowled over by a squadron of monks in helmets.


CHAPTER 9

The ramp in the belly of the cargo hold was cranked open. Cold wind whistled as it leaked inside and whipped around everyone's hair. A line of green beacons lit up along the ramp, with two red beacons shining at the end.

Raoul felt himself hoisted roughly to his feet. He turned around and looked up to see Captain Rudolphus glowering down at him. Then the captain's eyes flicked down to something near Raoul's feet.

Raoul looked down and saw his gingerbread cookie. "I didn't steal that," he said.

Captain Rudolphus narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "And the soap?"

Raoul looked at his pocket. The bar of soap from the washroom was sticking out. "I don't really know how that got there," he said. His voice was shaking as he said it, because he was sure the captain and his squadron of guards had come to throw him out of the ship. Raoul took another look at the dark, windy night below the hanging ramp. "Please don't throw me in the ocean!" he cried, dropping to his knees. "The baker gave me the cookie, I swear!"

"You're dangling by a thread," said Captain Rudolphus gravely. "If I catch you being naughty on my ship..."

"Ho ho, captain!" shouted Raoul, standing up straight and saluting smartly.

Rudolphus nodded. "Now step aside." He extended his hand and helped Raoul to his feet. "These brothers and sisters have work to do."

One monk waved a set of colourful flags to direct the others, calling out, "Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!"

One by one the helmeted monks ran down the ramp and jumped off, dropping away into the whistling darkness. Raoul couldn't help but run to the edge to look, but he couldn't see much. "They've got parachutes, right?" he asked.

Rudolphus nodded again. "Naturally, but you won't catch a glimpse. Only the craftiest paratroopers ride on my ship. They are, above all, masters of not being seen."

"Like Batman," said Raoul.

"Better than Batman," said the captain as he walked away. "Saint Nicholas' elite Silent Squadron, Pacific Division. Gift ninjas."

Raoul stood by himself for a second, then chased after Captain Rudolphus. He caught up to him as the captain was climbing a short metal ladder to a higher deck. Raoul called up to him, "Those paratroopers are delivering...presents?"

"Of course," said the captain. "Haven't you figured out who we are yet, you silly little man? Don't you understand what all this is about?"

Raoul looked at his shoes and shook his head.

"This is Christmas," said Captain Rudolphus. "This is how it happens. This is what we do."

"But who are you?" begged Raoul.

Captain Rudolphus' beard twitched in a funny way. "Why, we're Santa Claus."


CHAPTER 10

"Wait a minute!" called Raoul, scampering after Captain Rudolphus as he jogged up a flight of metal steps and strode into the cockpit. Raoul followed him and then stopped short, his eyes going wide as he tried to take in the baffling array of knobs and buttons and gauges spread all around the pilots. The captain, for his part, sat up on a tall chair behind them.

"Are you still here?" he snorted, crossing his legs.

"But I don't understand!" protested Raoul. "You haven't explained anything!"

The captain rolled his eyes. "Listen," he said impatiently, "haven't you ever heard of Santa Claus before?"

"Sure," said Raoul. "He gives presents to, um, good kids on Christmas Eve."

"And how does he accomplish such a mighty task?"

Raoul shrugged. "Er, well. Magic, I think. Magic reindeer, magic sleigh, magic sack, magic boots, magic nose...um, and so on."

Rudolphus shook his head in a kindly way and leaned in close. "Let me tell you an important secret, young man. Magic is simply a short way of saying we don't know." He sat back again and crossed his arms. "Magic is a fun trick. Magic is a mystery. Magic is a show -- smoke and mirrors, lamps and glitter. Nothing more."

Raoul scratched his head. "So how does Santa Claus actually do it?"

"Cooperation," snapped the captain. "Organization! Bravery! Dedication! Caring! Hard-work! That's how. It's good people with a common goal -- and that's better than magic. That's real."

Raoul looked around. Everyone else in the cockpit was looking at him. "But who tells you to do it?" he asked.

"Nicholas is our patron," said the captain, "but we take our instructions from our own hearts -- from a sense of compassion that makes us want to make the world a slighter brighter place for those who need it most." He leaned down close to Raoul's face again. "Haven't you ever wanted to make life better for someone?"

Raoul opened his mouth to answer, then changed his mind and closed it again. Try as he might, Raoul could not think of anyone's life he had ever tried to make better...except maybe his own.

"I guess I understand," he mumbled.

"You don't, I assure you," said Captain Rudolphus evenly. "A thief and a liar like you probably left his heart so far behind he's forgotten what one feels like."

Raoul blushed and looked down. After a moment he looked up again and said hopefully, "Maybe I could learn?" He straightened and threw a smart salute. "Just give me a chance, captain!"

"Maybe," agreed the captain. "But it's not about proving it to me, or even to Nicholas. The one you have to convince is the one who always knows when you lie."

Raoul cocked his head. "Who's that?"

Rudolphus pointed at Raoul. "You."

A bell started dinging. One of the pilots turned in her chair, her expression scared. "Captain, radar contact. Two aircraft, closing quickly!"

Captain Rudolphus jumped to his feet and roared, "Red alert!"


CHAPTER 11

Suddenly the cockpit of the airship was full of noise: shouting monks, buzzing alarms, ringing telephones. "Profile matches the F-35A series," called a monk with an earphone pressed to the side of his head. "It's the Australians again, captain."

"Dive!" ordered Captain Rudolphus, his loud, deep voice easily heard over the crosstalk. "Spin up the cloud machine!"

The airship dropped, the floor pitching. Raoul stumbled forward and tumbled into one of the pilots. "Oof!"

"And get this clown out of the cockpit!" added Rudolphus.

The pilot leaned down against her seatbelts and helped Raoul to stand up. "Go to the engineering deck!" she told him, pointing the way. "Brother Regis will make sure you're safe."

Raoul nodded and took off running down the long corridor past the ladder to the cargo hold. He skidded to a stop when he came into a wide space that was crisscrossed with aluminium pipes like metal spaghetti. Everywhere around him something was pumping or turning or snorting out steam.

In the middle of it all was a portly old man with a jolly red nose and a big white beard.

"Holy smokes!" cried Raoul. "Santa!"

"Ho no," laughed Brother Regis. "At least, not any more than anybody else. Come on over here, boy -- you need to put a seatbelt on while we're jostling about so much!"

Raoul did as he was told, sitting next to Regis in front of a big console of dials and gauges and switches and lights. "Is it the Australians again?" Regis asked Raoul.

Raoul nodded. "Are we going to die?" he asked.

"Ho no!" laughed Brother Regis once more. "Very likely not, boy. No, no -- we've outfoxed the Air Force before. Some of the cleverest monks in our order are in the counter-intelligence division, after all."

"Counter what?" said Raoul.

The airship shook. Brother Regis leaned forward and tapped at some gauges on his big console. "We're quite low," he said, squinting at the dial. "We're practically skimming the waves. I hope our young captain knows what he's doing!"

"Captain Rudolphus doesn't seem so young to me," said Raoul.

Brother Regis smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "Oh, it wasn't so long ago that he wasn't much different than a fellow like yourself. Don't let him fool you: he was once a rascal, too."

Raoul gasped. "A thief?"

"And worse," nodded Regis as he threw a switch and pulled a lever. "But now he's one of Nicholas' very best men."

"How did he do it?" cried Raoul desperately. "How did he convince them he was good?"

"Convincing others is easy," replied Regis, "once you have convinced yourself." He turned back to his gauges and grinned. "We seem to be returning to flying height once again. Ho, ho! The Australians must have moved off."

Raoul undid his seatbelt and stood up, a thoughtful look on his face. "Thank you," he mumbled as he wandered out of the engineering deck, speeding up as he went. He marched right into the cockpit and stopped in front of Captain Rudolphus. The captain paused from giving orders to look down at Raoul, one ginger eyebrow raised.

"I want to do something," said Raoul. "I want to help. Send me on the next mission, captain."

"I already told you," replied the captain, "I don't believe a thief like you has what it takes."

"But I'm starting to think you might be wrong about that," said Raoul in a very clear voice. "And I want a chance to find out. Please, captain."

Captain Rudolphus looked deep into Raoul's eyes, and Raoul's eyes did not twitch or blink or dip. At last, the captain nodded. "So be it," he agreed. "Let the log show: this layman has taken on a task for Nicholas -- this date, this hour."

Raoul grinned from ear to ear.



CHAPTER 12

Raoul scampered along a narrow catwalk after Captain Rudolphus as they crossed over a great flank of the giant dirigible, its soft skin seeming to sigh as was pressed to and fro by the breeze. "Who are we going to give presents to?" Raoul asked. "Orphans? It's probably orphans, isn't it? Orphans are good people. I never robbed orphans."

The captain shook his head and handed Raoul a pair of work gloves and a pitch fork. "It's not orphans."

"Is it sick kids with terrible diseases?" asked Raoul. "I feel bad for tykes like that. Like, in my heart and stuff. Honest."

Captain Rudolphus rolled his eyes. "Down here," he said. "Mind the wind."

"Mind the what?" said Raoul, but nobody could hear him because the captain had just pulled open a hatch on the floor and it suddenly becam every windy. He kicked a rolled up ladder out of the hatch, and it unrolled as it fell. Raoul looked down after the ladder but all he could see was darkness. He gulped.

"After you," said the captain, gesturing to the ladder. "I don't want you dropping that pitch fork on me."

Raoul took a breath and clambered down onto the rope ladder. It swayed under his feet, which made him squeak like a mouse, but then he screwed up all his courage and carefully worked his way down the rungs with the pitch fork pinched under one arm.

He was surprised how quickly he got to the ground. A moment later Captain Rudolphus dropped down to the grass beside him. Up above, the airship hovered dark as a cloud, invisible against the sky, humming quietly. Captain Rudolphus grabbed his elbow. "Come on," he grumbled. "No time for lolligagging."

They were in what seemed to be a zoo -- but a zoo nobody had visited for a long time. "Are all of the cages empty?" asked Raoul.

"Quiet," hissed the captain.

So Raoul asked his question again, but this time he whispered.

"Not all of them," the captain whispered back impatiently. "The zoo is closing. Most of the animals have been moved elsewhere."

They came to a run-down old barn. The captain peeked inside, then jogged back into the open and shone a red flashlight up at the Yule's cockpit. Then he shone it on the ground in front of the barn. The airship's engines buzzed a bit louder as it crawled carefully forward, positioning its belly directly over the captain's beam.

The gangway ramp opened, but it didn't quite touch the ground. A team of monks inside shoved out a dozen bales of hay and then let down two large wooden crates. As soon as the job was done the ship backed off again, rising slightly and veering aside.

"You," whispered the captain to Raoul; "pitch that hay into that barn and, please, be quiet about it. We don't want to wake them."

"Wake who?" asked Raoul, turning around as the captain carefully pulled open the barn doors. Inside were two sleeping elephants: one large, one small. The small one was snoring.

"Holy cow!" cried Raoul. "Hippopotamuses!"

"Hush!" hissed the captain. "And they're elephants, you dolt. Now get pitching."

Raoul used the pitch fork to pitch the bales of hay into the barn next to the sleeping elephants. Then he helped the captain to pry open the crates. Inside the first crate were bananas and apples. "Elephants love bananas," explained Rudolphus. In the second crate were big pots of paint and a giant paint brush. "And baby elephants love to paint pictures," Rudolphus said.

"They do?" gasped Raoul.

"They do," said the captain, arranging the gifts where the animals would find them when they woke up. He stood up and dusted off his pants, nodding with satisfaction.

"And so we're making a happy Christmas for elephants?" asked Raoul in disbelief. "That's our mission?"

"Our concern is the children in this town who love the elephants. Our concern is that their beloved elephants not starve before a new home can be found. The money has run out -- we cannot save the zoo. But we can make its remaining creatures comfortable."

Raoul frowned. "So you're really not solving the problem."

"No," agreed Rudolphus. "We're giving hope to others, so that they might care enough to continue trying."

"That doesn't seem like enough," argued Raoul.

Captain Rudolphus closed the doors of the barn. He gestured at Raoul to walk. "I used to think like that. I used to think a little bit of surprising joy wasn't worth too much. But I've seen the big, big effects it can have."

They stopped in front of the main gate. The gardens were dried up. The paint on the signs was peeling. A single streetlamp lit up the shuttered ticket kiosk. On the shutters was a sign and a slot. Raoul squinted at it. "What's that sign say?"

"Can't you read?" asked the captain, startled.

"I didn't do good in school so I stopped trying," admitted Raoul.

Captain Rudolphus sighed and put a hand on Raoul's shoulder. "That's an easy problem to fix, in time. Anyone can learn to read. That sign asks for donations, to keep the last few animals fed. The slot is for money."

"How much do they need?" asked Raoul.

"Thousands and thousands," said the captain, shaking his head. "Come now, it's time to return to the ship."

Raoul nodded sadly and started to follow the captain, but found himself falling behind. He saw the captain grab hold of the ladder to climb back up into the Yule, then he made a decision. Quickly, Raoul ran back toward the main gate.

When he got there he reached deep inside himself, and retrieved the red ruby ring. It was the very last of his loot.

Raoul pushed the ring into the donation slot.

He heard it land inside, and he didn't regret it one bit. In fact, he started to feel quite splendid inside. He started to think about how surprised and happy the zoo people would be when they opened the donation box and realized how much money they could get for the red ruby ring. Thinking about how happy they would be made him even happier.

Nobody had seen it. Raoul had been all alone when it happened. It was like stealing, only good.

Raoul's heart had never felt so full. He laughed out loud. He did a little dance. And then he remembered the captain was waiting for him and he dashed off toward the ladder --

-- And smacked right into the captain's broad chest. "Oof!" said Captain Rudolphus.

"I was just, um..." started Raoul, and then he changed his mind. "It's nothing. I didn't mean to keep you waiting, captain. Let's go." He turned and grabbed hold of the ladder.

"I saw that," said Captain Rudolphus. "I saw what you did."

Raoul looked at the captain, unsure how to feel. "I didn't mean to be sneaky," he said quickly.

Captain Rudolphus smiled, his beard splitting to show his white teeth. "You've done good tonight, Raoul," he said. "I'm proud of you. I'd like to shake your hand." He held out his hand, then hesitated and drew it back. "Well, maybe you should wash, first."

Raoul blushed, then grinned. "Thank you, captain. I've...never felt so wonderful before."

"You'd better get used to it," the captain replied as he started climbing up the ladder; "you're going to feel that way a lot if you join the Order of Saint Nicholas."

The thief who wasn't a thief anymore followed the captain up the ladder, and inside the belly of the massive lighter-than-air craft. Her propellers spun faster, her gas bladders filled, her flaps angled for ascent. The airship Yule rose up, a shadow over the town, merging with the clouds.

Soon, the moonlit waves flashed beneath them again. "Onward, Antarctica!" rumbled the captain, ringing the ship's bell for attention. "And to all a good night!"

"Ho!" called Raoul.

"Ho, ho!" chanted the monks.


The End

Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
One Small Step for Santa | Girls Can Be Santa Claus, Too | The Salt Moon Robots

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